Sentimental Journey by Ken Stange
SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY . . . August 24, 1990. . Time: 8:35. Tripmeter reading: 0 kilometers. Bike out of Orchard Grove Campground on Lundy's Lane. My wife and daughter wave goodbye. They will be driving back to our home in North Bay. . The sun shines through a few wispy stratus clouds. (I mention this because weather matters.) . My son, Christiaan, is twenty and has shoulder length hair that I think he is a bit too vain about. I am forty-three, and my hair is rather long too, but only because I've been too busy to have it cut. . Katherine Mansfield once told her diary: "Whenever I prepare for a journey I prepare as though for death. Should I never return all is in order." I can't claim to adhere to such a policy, but I admire it. But then I'm sure morticians can give haircuts when required. . After coasting down Clifton Hill through early morning tourists and honeymooners who need no sleep, we stop for a final look at The Falls. Our annual bike trips together began five years ago -- from this same origin, but with the less ambitious destination of Toronto. This time we are going on to Montreal. This time my son will be staying at our trip's destination. . Niagara Falls is for us, and many others, Nostalgia City, so it is an appropriate place to begin our journey. It is appropriate that the town is so kitschy. It is appropriate that bikers (the other kind, the kind with motors) love this place, as do young turks in muscle cars with vulgar taste in music, as do lovers, as do families like ours who come here for a weekend every summer just because when they first came here the magic was in them. With its cotton candy, wax museums, miniature golf courses, petty dope dealers, fast food outlets, arcades, manicured public gardens, 'people-mover' accordion buses, crowded campgrounds, waterslide parks -- this town is Ripley's and everybody else's "Believe It Or Not". Like a popular love song or a twenty-year old's plans for the future, intelligence and taste are not the issue. . After performing the silly, but necessary, ritual of lovingly photographing our bikes, we begin to ascend the Niagara Parkway. Our bikes are laden with our sleeping bags, a tent, and panniers stuffed with clothes and traveling essentials. My legs feel strong and the climb turns out to be easy. A leather- jacketed motorcyclist passes us, and I shout after him: "Real men don't need motors." He can't hear my little joke. You can't hear anything on a motorcycle. . There are two ways to relate to the world: as a linear series of tasks and pleasures or as a complex puzzle. Contrary to the principle of entropy, the passing of time inclines us toward the latter. This trip is my respite from time. I relish having all my concerns reduced to one: reaching the day's destination. So while Christiaan probably rides for the stimulation, I ride for the simplification. . 10:38. 29.6 klicks. After lunch in Niagara On The Lake, we're on the road again. Lately I have assumed the lead position on our bike tours. On our first few trips I would ride behind, and farther out in the road, as if I could shield my son from passing cars with my own body. A few years ago we reversed positions. Without ever talking about it, we both know this is so that I can set the pace. While my leading makes pedaling physically easier for Christiaan (since I break the wind resistance and he can do what cyclists call 'drafting'), psychologically it is much preferable to lead. It is humiliating and exhausting to feel you're constantly struggling to keep up, and these days he would certainly ride far faster than I would find comfortable. He is being as discreetly gentle with me as I once was with him. Of course it is best on those roads with so little traffic we can ride side by side, and the pace just happens. . 1:35. 62.1 klicks. Restaurant at Prudhomme's Landing. We stopped here on our first trip together, and since fluid intake is so important when you're cycling, our most vivid memory is of the large mason fruit jars of draft and coke we quaffed. This time we order two 'jars' of draft. The young waitress looks confused; they don't serve drinks in jars. For a moment we are disoriented in time and find it hard to convince ourselves that it's been half a decade since we last rehydrated and refueled our bodies here. The place feels the same, as though we'd been here just the other day, probably because the sensations of traveling through space mask one's memories of traveling through time -- which is no doubt why people use travel to heal the wounds of the past. . 5:28. 96.7 klicks. Confederation Park outside Hamilton. We select from the gatehouse map what we think is the same campsite we had five years ago. It turns out to be two sites away from our original campsite. After we've set up the tent and changed into fresh clothes, we ride into town, intending to eat at the same Mother's Pizza where we dined our first trip. It isn't Mother's anymore. It is Caesar's. Actually, its isn't even Caesar's anymore: an out of business notice is posted on the door. . . August 24, 1990. . 9:40. 107.7 klicks. Another sunny day. On to Toronto. . Along the way, at one of our stops for orange juice, I notice a barbershop adjacent to the convenience store. I want to duck in for a haircut, but Christiaan dissuades me. . 3:04. 177.3 klicks. Toronto already. The ride from Hamilton to Toronto was almost too easy: a piece of that proverbial cake. We stow our stuff at a friend's who has offered us shelter for the night, and my son and I head out for dinner at a Mexican restaurant. When I casually comment over my tostada that my friend is a helluva nice guy, Christiaan (a few beers in) remarks: "You are too, Dad." I start talking about the weather. Weather matters. . . August 26, 1990. . 7:15. 179.2 klicks. Obvious, even this early, that the sun is going to scorch. . We stop on our way out of town at Main Street and Kingston Road so I can show my son our last Toronto residence. This is also the place where I'd had a nervous breakdown. My wife was away in Chicago visiting her parents, and Christiaan, then only a year old, was with her. It was 1971. I don't know what caused me to ride over the edge. I was seriously physically ill for the first and only time in my life; I was using both prescription and non- prescription drugs; I was having a hard time making the bills; I was a father when I still felt like a boy. I remember standing on this street corner outside our apartment waiting to die. That I was about to die was a given, but I really didn't want to die alone. . I recovered fairly quickly, but the neurotic belief that I would die young haunted me for many years afterwards. It wasn't death itself that frightened me; it was the fear that my son would not remember me. My own father died when I was five. At my birthday party last year, a friend gave me a card that said: "Congratulations, at least you don't have to worry about dying young." . 11:12. 237.8 klicks. Oshawa, and everything closed because it is an Ontario Sunday. We eventually find a place that opens at noon, and the initially hostile proprietress takes pity on the two sweaty guys sitting patiently on her stoop and allows them into her air-conditioned den before opening time. We share the effort of charming her. . 4:45. 289.7 klicks. Port Hope. Any port in a storm, and this Hope was springing eternal along the seemingly infinite stretch from Oshawa. Our route was along the Lake Ontario shoreline and away from the main highway. It was surprisingly hilly, and the oppressive heat gave me some understanding of an old Arab maxim I don't really agree with: "Journeys are a fragment of hell." . It was the heat that made this stretch cruel, not the hills. People always ask about the hills. I think most cyclists will agree that hills which don't completely sap your momentum before you peak them are better than flats. I always say: "What goes up must come down, so hills really don't matter that much." What does matter is the angle -- the angle of descent, not the angle of ascent. You want a gentle angle down. It lengthens the coast, the distance you travel without doing any work at all. (I'm sorry if this sounds like an overly obvious metaphor for life.) . Christiaan and I approach the hills differently: he attacks them; I outlast them. Even our bikes reflect this difference: he rides a tight 12 speed Fuji racer; I ride a Miyata touring bike with an extra small front sprocket (derisively called a Granny gear) that gives me 18 gears and better ratios for hill climbing. His machine is made for attacking, mine for enduring. . The trouble with attacks is that if they fail, you fail. You'll get up that hill faster in a higher gear, but if your wind or legs or will give out, well then you're suddenly at a standstill from which there is no way up but (most ignobly) by pushing your bike. . Christiaan is twenty and his attacks do not fail, so I encourage him to slip ahead of me when approaching any particularly mean hills. I fear that climbing behind me must feel like waiting in a slow moving queue. There is no need for him to lose his youthful momentum because of his father. . I'm still stronger than he is, something he casually acknowledges, just as I casually acknowledge that I will never again beat him in a race. Of course even this face-saving advantage will eventually be lost. For now I just appreciate being handed the crescent wrench when his own efforts to loosen a stubborn nut fail. It doesn't really matter that this balance is precarious and cannot last forever; what makes any balance interesting is its potential collapse. . 6:15. 302.4 klicks. Coburg campground. . . August 27, 1990. . 8:35. 303.9 klicks. Again sun in perfectly clear skies. . 2:30. 369.4 klicks. Carrying Place. It is so hot the air is as palpable as water. Before lunch I was exhausted and questioned the wisdom of riding all the way across Prince Edward County in the enervating heat. But a little food and a lot of beverage have revitalized me. Christiaan, anxious to press on, points out that once we start riding the heat won't matter that much. . He's right, of course. Once you get the rhythm going, you enter an altered state of consciousness. It is not the state striven for in meditation, where the goal is calm. As Pascal reflected, "our nature lies in movement; complete calm is death." No, when riding long and hard, the sensation is not one of calm, but rather that of a dynamic balance with the universe, an active homeostasis. In fact when you finally come to a stop, the lack of movement feels unnatural. Suddenly you are sweaty, suddenly you feel the heat, the fatigue, the little aches in your muscles and joints -- and the pain in your ass. . 5:15. 414.1 klicks. Royal Hotel, Picton. This is a watering hole in the old style; they even serve draft in those small, honest beer glasses that've been replaced in most hotels by false bottomed mugs. We 'four up' more than a few times while eavesdropping on a rag-tag party of elderly hotelers at the next table. My son expresses admiration for these fellow patrons, for their joie de vivre, for their total lack of concern for appearances. I don't express admiration, but I feel it, for his ability to appreciate this. . Having had more beer than prudent, we leave the Royal for a campground supposedly only five klicks out of town. We discover it is a day park only and are told that the nearest campground that might be open is across the bay in some place called Aldolphustown. For some reason we find this more funny than distressing, even though it's already twilight. Fortunately the ferry runs every fifteen minutes. . After the crossing, we start a mad dash through the quickly thickening darkness. For the first time during the trip there are bugs, thousands of them. Our helmets, even our faces, must look like car windshields in Muskoka, for the little buggers crash by the hundreds into us as we pedal along. By now we are totally giddy and making absurd jokes about Adolph Villa and Adults Town. . 8:20. 428.7 klicks. Adolphustown campground. . . August 28, 1990. . 8:55. 429.2 klicks. Still sunny. Still hot. . Because the road begins at the ferry dock, it is virtually free of traffic except for brief bursts every fifteen minutes. We stop at a park and skip stones and laugh about another time on another trip when we'd done this and a bitter, demented old man on a park bench had scolded us, saying we were raising the water level of the lake. . 11:40. 481.1 klicks. Kingston. We meet with a friend of mine, a poet, for lunch. We talk about his new book and about his retirement home on a remote island off B.C. For some reason the thought of him retiring frightens me. I don't think of him as old. . When we finally leave the restaurant, the world has changed. The sky is dark and threatening. . 6:10. 530.0 klicks. Ivy Lea Provincial Park. We're too indecisive in selecting our campsite, and the storm hits just as we're setting up the tent. Somehow we manage to get our stuff stowed away without it getting too wet. Then the rain stops, but the sky turns a dissonant combination of mauve and red and cyan and black. The attendant at the gate house has informed us that severe storm and tornado warnings are in effect. Our campsite is on a point of land beside the St. Lawrence. We eat cheese and crackers and watch the river go still, then churn up, then go still again within minutes. The wind comes in gusts, punctuated by a spooky calm. Sheet lightning flashes across from the far east of the horizon to the far west. We joke about making a dash for the comfort station should things get serious, but I find myself seriously worrying, not about myself, but about him. I wonder if my fear of death has not been so much overcome as displaced to fear for my children. Eventually the show becomes less dramatic, and we call it a day. . . August 29, 1990. . 8:15. 534.4 klicks. The sun playing hide and seek behind cumulous clouds. A bit of a headwind. . 11:45. 571.9 klicks. An Italian restaurant in Brockville that has a sign on the door saying "We don't serve pizza." We enjoy ordering beer, no food, from a surly waitress who obviously thinks we are not ideal patrons of her ristorante. . 5:05. 628.9 klicks. Morrisburg. At last. All day my knee hurting. The headwinds much stronger after leaving Brockville, and the road psychologically debilitating: a ruler-straight highway that stretched from the horizon behind to the horizon ahead. So: very glad to be here. . The town that is your day's destination often takes on mythic proportions once you begin to tire. Just past the sign heralding Morrisburg city limits a fair sized shopping mall hulks at the side of the highway. At its beer store the classic question: "Where's downtown?" receives the classic answer: "You're lookin' at it." This is no lie. I don't know why this disturbs me so much, but as later exploration confirms, Morrisburg really has no downtown, not even the remnants of one, yet it has some fine old homes and so is clearly not new on the map. They must've bulldozed the old city centre to put up the mall. Christiaan doesn't like malls, but he doesn't find this total, cruel replacement of the old by the new nearly as disturbing as I do. . . August 30, 1990. . 8:45. 648.6 klicks. Sun in a clear sky, but it has cooled off considerably. The headwinds are gone. My knee is better. . 9:28. 662.9 klicks. Upper Canada Village. We do the tourist thing, the high point of which is taking a horse-drawn wagon ride through this temporally dislocated place. . 12:05. 676.8 klicks. Picnic lunch just beside a beautiful Parkway that runs through a chain of islands. The day feels like silk. . 2:23. 705.7 klicks. Cornwall. After the parkway: a winding bike trail which we race along like kids coming home after the last class of the year. The day feels like the screendoor summers of my youth. The riding has been easy, the weather ideal, and the illusion of being outside of time perfect. . 5:13. 737.0 klicks. Glengarry Campground. After getting the tent up we go for a swim. The water is cold so we carefully position ourselves to catch the late afternoon sun slanting through the trees. . After dinner we build our first campfire of the trip, since this is, suddenly, our last night on the road. I want to talk about how much this trip means to me, but somehow can't find the path into such a topic. We are both tired. The fire goes to embers and our conversation becomes desultory. We douse the fire and go to tent. . . August 31, 1990. . 7:45. 748.3 klicks. Even cooler, but the sun still shines in an empty sky. . 8:30. 760.8 klicks. Quebec border. . And then the towns slip by faster and faster. Soon we're on the island and the towns become suburbs. Much earlier in the trip, when someone asked Christiaan why he was biking to Montreal, he said he "was just trying to get home." If asked now, this answer wouldn't seem funny. . 2:35. 849.9 klicks. A sidewalk cafe in Old Montreal. We're having what will be our last conversation of the trip. Christiaan tells me about how important this next year is to him. I want to tell him how important his next year is to me but don't -- because his father's desires should no longer have anything to do with what he does. . I notice as we talk how gentle we are with each other. The last few years our relationship has become almost too cautious and considerate. I know this is a sign of profound caring coupled with less than perfect intimacy. It is the remainder from a division of father and son that happened in his mid- adolescence. Our particular conflict was not unusual, centering on his tendency to be too much like I was at the same age. . Such straining of the parental bond probably happens to virtually every father and son during The Adolescent Period. I wonder, though, if it is the son's adolescence or the father's middle age that does it. Why is the son assumed to be the cause? The changes are just as traumatic and dramatic for the father. These conflicts are always explained in terms of youth's rebelliousness (probably because Dad is doing the explaining), but middle- age's recalcitrance is an equally good explanation. My son was not really very rebellious at all, and our conflict very mild by comparison to most. When I think about it now it seems silly -- but necessary. Like writing about this trip. . 4:05. 858.2 klicks. Arrive at my son's apartment, his new home. I take a picture of him outside the apartment, standing by our bikes, looking strong and brown and handsome. I am sure it will come out nice because the sun is bright and at my back. Weather matters. The sun matters. Our sons matter. . Brushing the hair from my eyes, I ask him if there is a barber shop in his new neighborhood.